Film stars are queuing up to find space on our bookshelves

The dream merchants contribute a lot to our cultural and emotional life but for years they remained in a distant orbit. Their personal lives remain a closed book that only spills into gossip columns. The light years can be gauged from the fact that Dilip Kumar’s first official biography is releasing next week, years after he has played his innings. But of late there has been an increasing interest in the publishing industry to place your favourite star on a shelf near you. Give it to the lack of role models, increasing accessibility of film stars or Bollywood emerging as the driver of most of our social dialogue, the market is full of official and unofficial biographies.

Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has come up with the biography of Waheeda Rehman, says the trend of biographies of film stars started a few years ago. “I think stars are thinking about how their lives will be perceived in the overall history of cinema, and how they were involved with the making of this history.”

Many of them are quickies, though. Most of them are hagiographies and all of them see the subject in soft focus. Only last year we had had an unofficial biography of Aamir Khan in the form of Do It My Way and this year Pradeep Chandra has done it his way in the form of a pictorial biography of Aamir without the nod of the star. Rajinikanth has also been the flavour of the season. The lives of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan have become part of folklore, courtesy multiple biographies. But do we really get to know them? Then again, does it really matter? Publisher Bikash Niyogi says books on film stars have a “regular” demand. And in an industry where a sales figure of 10,000 books makes it a bestseller, it is not difficult to sell the tomes to the devoted fans who spend thousands to watch the films of their favourite screen idols every month.

“My book costs Rs.1500, an amount a family pays to watch a film of Aamir,” says Chandra. Chandra’s reasoning is when Aamir’s films can earn more than 100 crores at box office, a book on him can easily sell 3000 copies, the print order of Chandra’s book.

Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, Kabir has been able to cut through the aura of her subjects to bring us the craft and commitment of the likes of Javed Akhtar, Lata Mangeshkar, A.R. Rahman and now Waheeda Rehman. Kabir likes the idea of having direct access to the “voice of the subject”, while there are many like Chandra who fill in the anecdotes by speaking to the friends, relatives, journalists and colleagues or make them write chapters. He is not the only one. In the past Vinod Mehta tried something similar with Meena Kumari, and Jerry Pinto did it with aplomb with Helen.

Pinto’s work is incredible in the sense that he dared to look beyond the top names to dig into the life of someone who was derided in public but drooled over in private. Similarly, Sunaina Roshan has just penned the life and times of her father Rakesh Roshan, an eternal struggler who ultimately made it to the top rung. Kabir says, “In the West, there is a big difference between authorised and unauthorised biographies. In India it matters too because authorised allows the writer access to letters, diaries and photographs the star has, otherwise these are difficult to get hold of.”

Life is not easy for those who make these works possible. Sources say censorship, thought control and dressing up are some of the obstacles that an editor at a publishing house has to encounter. Before that, the writer has to get over the insecurities of the star or a close family member.

Dipa Chaudhuri, Chief Editor of Om Books International, who has edited many a biography, says, “Be it the biography of an actor or an actress, one must take care to not reduce it to a sanitised, one-dimensional, gushing and elaborate version of his/her filmography, clearly side-stepping the fact that a film star has several other angularities that nurture his/her art. Film stars enjoy their larger-than-life screen personae; yet battle to distinguish it from their actual lives. And more often than not, their fans ensure that the battle is lost rather than won.”

Describing Rakesh Roshan’s biography as a unique experience, Dipa says, “He has worn several hats, some more successfully than others. He has been an actor, a producer and a director. But he stands out most, not as a myth, but as a very real person who stayed the course for over 40 years without keeling over.”

Biographies come in different formats now. Besides the coffee table presentation, some do it in narrative style and some keep it cut to cut in Q&A form. In an interview to this journalist at the time of the release of her biography of A.R. Rahman in Q&A format, Kabir said how many times could she say “we met and he was wearing a white kurta, the sun was shining...etc.” She said, “If I were the reader, I would skip that bit and cut straight to the Q & A.”

But in times of Internet, who actually needs a coffee table book to get access to one’s favourite star’s life and photos? “There are many fan clubs eager to buy such books,” says Chandra. “Such books provide all the information about your favourite star at one place and there are some exclusive pictures of Aamir which only I can provide,” says the noted photographer who has earlier penned the pictorial-biography of M.F. Husain and Amitabh Bachchan.

There is also an increasing demand for books comprising the dialogues and screenplays of classic films. Kabir, who has immortalised Mughal-e-Azam, Awaara, Mother India, Pyaasa and Devdas, between covers, says, “Perhaps, it is an urge to leave something behind. To somehow record something about Indian cinema that will have value in the future.” She feels it is another way of legitimising cinema, a great art form. “Think of all the theatre plays that have survived centuries. Sometimes this is not because the plays have been performed but the fact they exist in book form. Do you know I haven’t found a single filmed interview with Mehboob Khan or Shailendra? With the passing of each individual an entire history vanishes. And I believe archiving their lives is important.”